LINCOLN — If and when Nebraska needs depth at linebacker, Trent Bray is more confident than ever in maintaining quality.
The NU linebackers coach said Tuesday that the “4” part of Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense has made noticeable strides in the last week of fall camp. Dedrick Young, a junior and projected starter at inside linebacker, has grown in his understanding of football and knows better where to be in coverage. The same is true on the outside for redshirt sophomore Alex Davis, who didn’t play football at all until his senior year of high school and shifted from defensive end in the spring.
“This last week, his development has shot up,” Bray said. “We feel good about Alex, where he’s at today. He had some growing pains in the beginning of camp, which we expected. But he’s really picking it up and coming on. So we like where Alex is going.”
Bray said linebackers are generally getting their hands on balls more often now than in the spring as they grow more comfortable with the new schemes.
The second unit also is coming on strong, Bray said. True freshman and early enrollee Avery Roberts has shown he can help the Huskers this year on the inside behind senior Chris Weber.
“We’ve got to develop him as the season goes because we all know how a season goes,” Bray said. “Who knows what game it will be, but we’ll need him at some point to have a large role. We just got to develop him, and he’s got to learn from Chris and the things that Chris does right. Then just keep growing that way even though he’s not going to get as many reps as Chris. So that’s always the hard part for young kids.”
Sophomore Mo Barry also will “be a part of the game” along the second line of defense, his coach said.
“He’s going to help and he’s going to play and he’s going to be a big impact for us,” Bray said. “And he’s played like that. We’ve got ways how we’re going to rotate those guys to make sure that we get guys on the field and that we’re always fresh, so we can play at maximum effort on every play.”
Asked about Guy Thomas, Bray said “we’re still in the process with him” as the 6-foot-3, 230-pound true freshman from Miami continues to learn his role.
Freedom’s role in new defense
Adjusting to a new defensive scheme and coordinator hasn’t diminished Freedom Akinmoladun’s enthusiasm. If anything, the gregarious 6-4, 280-pound junior from Grandview, Missouri, seems more animated than ever,
“I’m very comfortable in the position where I am now,” Akinmoladun said. “I know the scheme, I know what Coach Diaco wants me to do, and I know what the D-line wants me to do.”
And what is it they want you to do, Freedom?
“Terrorize the quarterback and stop the run,” he said.
There was a bit of laughter from him for the first part, but getting to opponents’ quarterbacks and dumping the occasional running back behind the line of scrimmage isn’t a joke to Akinmoladun.
In his first two seasons, he has been credited with 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss totaling 75 yards. Throw in 10 quarterback hurries in 2016, and the two-time academic All-Big Ten honoree is amped about playing end in Diaco’s defense.
“The older I get, the wiser I get,” Akinmoladun said. “I’m not (just) seeing things from my point of view, I can see things from others’ points of view.”
Not bad for a guy who was recruited by former coach Bo Pelini’s staff as a tight end.
“I believe it has definitely paid off for me,” Akinmoladun said. “I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to switch. Coming in playing defensive end, I was kind of lost in the beginning.
“But I had great players like Maliek Collins and Vince (Valentine) to help me out. I took the lessons they gave me and I’m helping out our players now.”
» Nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg and defensive end DaiShon Neal did not practice Tuesday. Their injuries are unknown. Slot receiver Keyan Williams (hamstring) continues to be out. Slot receiver JD Spielman returned to practice.
» Junior Peyton Newell has been Stoltenberg’s backup through fall camp, with true freshmen like Deontre Thomas and Damion Daniels also getting looks with the third unit. “Guys were flying around today trying to get better,” NU defensive line coach John Parrella said. “Young players, we’re doing a great job of getting them reps and getting them prepared. Real excited about the young players up front.”
» Dicaprio Bootle is considered NU’s third starting cornerback, Donte Williams said. Bootle is the No. 1 nickel corner in NU’s defense. Lamar Jackson is the No. 1 boundary corner and Eric Lee is the No. 1 field corner. Bootle told reporters he’s “learning a lot” and not in competition with Lee.
“We’re in this together — for the long haul,” Bootle said.
» Redshirt freshman defensive end Ben Stille from Ashland-Greenwood, who switched from outside linebacker back to defensive end, has impressed Diaco in camp. Diaco described Stille as one of NU’s most improved players.
“He’s learning how to cut it loose and not be thinking,” Diaco said. “He’s a very cerebral young man. Very smart. And in some instances in the past, he’s spent time thinking. That’s not the time. It’s a reacting man’s game. He’s done a really good job of cutting it loose and playing hard.”
» Diaco will be in the press box for games. He long has been, saying in a World-Herald interview this summer he prefers that vantage point to concentrate on calling the game, and that his demeanor switches for games — he’s very dialed in.
Asked about it Tuesday, Diaco initially said, “Really?” He added: “I just like to focus. Vantage point. Distractions, lack of them there. Hide from the masses, the pitchforks and the burning sticks.”
Nebraska’s assistant coaches all have roles, Diaco said, and will practice those roles before the first game.
» Tony Butler moved from safety to cornerback in training camp. Butler played corner at Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward High School. He missed all of last fall recovering from surgery.
“You see the kid and you expect him to hit like a linebacker,” Williams said of the 6-2, 210-pound Butler, who does resemble a linebacker. “But he’s coming off surgery, and this is his first fall camp. So it’s his first action in college football. And college football is not high school. It’s not. He’s working at a different pace, a different competitive edge, and defenses are getting put in daily. His mind is spinning, but he’s picking it up.”
» Diaco remains cagey when asked about the installation of his 3-4 scheme.
“We run our own system based on the staffs that we’ve been on,” he said. “We’ve built it. And 3-4 is a component, a building block and a piece. Like all strong foundations, there are other pieces. We’re pleased with where we’re at in terms of the install.”
» After Akinmoladun finished an interview session in front of multiple cameras, he overhanded a plastic bottle 20-25 feet toward a garbage bin. The end-over-end throw landed directly in the plastic bag.